Stanford embraces underdog role after mixed early expectations

Cameron Brink's 29 points, 11 rebounds lead Stanford to OT win over Duke (1:18)

Cameron Brink scores a career-high 29 points along with 11 rebounds and six blocks to lift Stanford to an 82-79 win in overtime. (1:18)

Cameron Brink stood courtside speaking to the ESPN broadcast crew following Stanford's 96-64 victory over then-No. 9 Indiana. It was a massive early season win for the Cardinal as well as a statement game for their senior All-American, who finished with 20 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in 28 minutes.

"We came out and showed everyone what we're made of," Brink said in the postgame interview two weeks ago. "I don't know, maybe people will take us a little more seriously now."

So far, the 2023-24 women's college basketball season has been as wide open as any we've seen in some time. And if anyone was overlooking the Cardinal -- in either the Pac-12 or nationally -- the first three weeks of November forced them to rethink the notion.

Following the 32-point takedown of Indiana, which was a No. 1 seed in the 2023 NCAA tournament, Stanford pulled out an 82-79 overtime win against Duke and improved to 5-0 on Wednesday behind a 74-55 victory over mid-major power Belmont. The Cardinal play No. 13 Florida State on Friday night in the Ball Dawgs Classic championship game, their toughest remaining nonconference opponent before a grueling conference slate.

"We like being underdogs because we can just go out and play with no pressure," junior Kiki Iriafen told ESPN this week. "We want to get back to people understanding that Stanford women's basketball is still a top contender."

Preseason expectations for Stanford, which won the program's third national title in 2021, were mixed heading into 2023-24. Coach Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal were coming off a stunning second-round NCAA tournament exit -- the program's earliest since 2007 -- to Ole Miss on their home floor and lost first-round WNBA draft pick Haley Jones to the pros. After losing in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, Stanford was picked to finish third in the conference behind Utah and UCLA and started at No. 15 in the preseason Associated Press poll, its lowest preseason ranking since 2015.

But optimism abounded in Palo Alto. Brink was returning, ready to take the reins as the team's leader, as was sharpshooter Hannah Jump, back for her fifth and final season on The Farm. Stanford's younger and more inexperienced players -- including the nation's No. 7-ranked 2023 recruiting class -- were eager to take on larger roles. And, Iriafen said, the Cardinal's second-round NCAA tournament loss left a bad taste in their mouths, a chip on their shoulder as they worked to ensure this season has a much different outcome.

"Tara says all the time, 'Every disappointment is a blessing,'" Brink told ESPN. "We knew as a program we wanted to make some changes. So I think culture-wise, we're doing great. We all just truly love each other and get along great and we're having fun together. I feel like you can really tell that we just enjoy each other's presence."

VanDerveer told her players the team is like a cake still baking in the oven, Iriafen said, something still developing but with the potential to become special. VanDerveer has to like the foundation they're building.

Brink has emerged as the player the Cardinal need her to be, averaging a career-high 18.4 points and 11.4 rebounds and cementing her as an early player of the year candidate. She made 73 consecutive free throws dating to last season, the second-longest streak in Division I history, before missing her first in nearly 300 days Wednesday. As a leader, she said she seeks to champion open communication, an environment where it's acceptable to make mistakes as well as a cohesiveness and bond amongst players.

Staying out of foul trouble is a huge part of Brink's growth this season. It's something she struggled with earlier in her career and has cropped already this season. Against Duke and Belmont, Brink sat on the bench after picking up early fouls, at which point those opponents went on runs. Her ability to remain on the court remains paramount to what the Cardinal want to do on both ends of the floor, especially as the players around her settle into their new roles.

Iriafen has also been dominant, the pair comprising one of the best frontcourts in the country. The junior is averaging a team-high 19.4 points on 65.6% shooting, plus 9.2 rebounds, both massive jumps from her sophomore year averages of 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game. Her 12.2 field goal attempts per contest this season are most on the team through five games.

Kiki Iriafen goes 5-for-5 in perfect first quarter for Stanford

Kiki Iriafen cannot miss in the first quarter, making all five of her shot attempts against Duke.

Iriafen spent this summer in the weight room getting stronger, going up against guys and working on finishing against bigger bodies, while making sure she entered the season with confidence.

"I'm less hesitant," Iriafen said. "When I get the ball, I know what I want to do. I can see the floor better. I'm not thinking too much like, 'Oh, what should I do?' I'm playing calm and have this fire as well."

Brink and Iriafen won't be able to do it alone, and Stanford's inside-out game will thrive as more perimeter shooters get going. Go-to shooter Jump sports a 36.7% accuracy on 3-pointers so far but was a career 42% shooter entering this season. Junior Brooke Demetre, freshman Courtney Ogden, sophomore Talana Lepolo and redshirt sophomore Jzaniya Harriel can also get going from deep.

This still-developing Stanford team will be tested in Pac-12 play against the likes of No. 2 UCLA , No. 3 Colorado (which upset defending champion LSU in its season opener), No. 8 USC, No. 10 Utah (which shared the 2023 Pac-12 regular-season title with Stanford) and No. 23 Washington State (reigning conference tournament champ). Nine of the conference's teams were included in ESPN's most recent women's Bracketology projection. With the Pac-12 looking like it'll have such a strong year in its last season of existence, what better way to go out than by going out on top?

This season could also be a finale for the Cardinal in another way. While VanDerveer, the game's winningest coach who is expected to surpass Mike Krzyzewski's all-time wins mark in the coming months, hasn't indicated she's planning on stepping away anytime soon -- even as Stanford switches to the ACC -- Brink has the opportunity to declare for the 2024 WNBA draft, where she would likely be a lottery pick.

Regardless of whether she opts to utilize her fifth year of eligibility, Brink envisions big things in store this season.

"I just really want to end this year on a high note because we have a really special group," Brink said. "I seriously think we couldn't get along any better."

What to watch this weekend

Check out Charlie Creme's viewer's guide for a complete look at the must-see Thanksgiving holiday tournament games.

No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 6 UConn

Cayman Islands Classic (Cayman Islands), 7:30 p.m. ET Friday, FloHoops

Both teams enter this meeting with something to prove. UCLA remains one of two preseason top-10 teams still undefeated (South Carolina is the other) and wants to cement itself as a Final Four contender. UConn stumbled out of the gate with a loss to NC State and is adjusting to the absence of Azzi Fudd, but is looking to show it's still one of the top teams in the country.

There's a lot of excitement over the guards in this matchup -- UCLA's Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne as well as UConn's Paige Bueckers -- but the post battle between Stanford transfer Lauren Betts, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, and third-team All-American Aaliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 senior, will likely be the deciding factor.

No. 3 Colorado vs. No. 10 NC State

Paradise Jam (U.S. Virgin Islands), 1 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN+

This game features two teams that flew relatively under the radar in the preseason. Fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance, Colorado was ranked No. 20 before beating defending champion LSU on opening day. NC State was unranked after losing some players in the transfer portal but came through with a convincing win over then-No. 2 UConn in the first week of the season. Both teams have been tested since. Colorado had to rally to beat Oklahoma State, while NC State was in a tight battle with Rhode Island before pulling out the win. But this top-10 matchup will be a barometer of just how good both teams are.

No. 21 Indiana vs. Princeton

Fort Myers Tip-Off (Fort Myers), 11 a.m. ET Saturday, fsubucs.com

Behind Yarden Garzon's 5-for-6 night from the 3-point arc, Indiana rebounded from its deflating Nov. 12 Stanford loss with a comfortable 71-57 win Thursday over a 19th-ranked Tennessee team missing top scorer Rickea Jackson. Princeton earned a mention here last week, but returns so soon following a convincing 77-63 victory over No. 22 Oklahoma in the other game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off's Island Division.

After taking then-No. 3 UCLA to the brink last week, it wouldn't be a shocker to see the Tigers crack the AP poll on Monday, and a win over the Hoosiers would only solidify their case. Madison St. Rose and Kaitlyn Chen are coming off a pair of 20-point performances against the Sooners.